Although the more overtly political spending of the Koch brothers has received much more attention, the Walton Family Foundation has, not surprisingly, been one of the major supporters of right-wing think tanks and public-policy experiments. Long a major donor to the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, the Walton Family Foundation has also become the major source of private funding supporting the development of charter-school alternatives to public schools, contributing more than $1 billion to charter schools over the past decade. Nationwide, more than one-quarter of the new charter schools have received “start-up” grants from the Walton Family Foundation. In the April 25, 2014, issue of the New York Times, Motoko Rich reveals these facts, among many others, about the Walton Family Foundation’s funding of what amounts to extensive Far-Right social engineering. [The full article is available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/26/us/a-walmart-fortune-spreading-charter-schools.html.]
This funding has insured that some of the charter schools have been tremendously successful—for instance, the four schools operated by D.C. Prep in the nation’s capital. But studies are now providing much concrete evidence that there is a very substantial gap between the performance of the most successful and selective charter schools–typically highlighted in materials promoting charter schools–and the majority of the charter schools, which are operated by for-profit corporations rather than by non-profit foundations. These would include most of the charter schools that now educate about half of the students in Washington, D.C. (There is a parallel, here, in the advertising for on-line for-profit universities, which typically features already successful professionals seeking additional credentials though those students are hardly typical of the majority of students at those institutions, who are seeking certificates and associate degrees.)
The Walton Family Foundation funds not just the charter schools themselves but activist groups that promote charter schools at the expense of public schools. For instance, when the Chicago School District recently created a furor with the announcement of plans to close 50 public schools, the Walton Family Foundation provided almost a half-million dollars in grants to support community meetings at which the closures could be justified and charter-school alternatives could be promoted.
And in case there is any doubt about the broader agenda that the Walton Family Foundation is promoting, its “education program officer” was previously employed by the American Legislative Exchange Council.
Indeed, the Walton Family Foundation is providing financial support for everything from training teachers to staff charter schools to promoting research that justifies the privatization of public education. The Walton Family Foundation is the largest private donor to Teach for America, which now places about a third of its corps members in charter schools. And the Foundation funds a research institute at the University of Arkansas that is dedicated to scholarship supporting the concepts of charter schools, school vouchers, and other mechanisms for privatizing public education.
Critics of the Walton Family Foundation have compared its strategies to promote charter schools and the impact on public schools to those employed by WalMart superstores and their impact on the communities in which they are located. Kevin G. Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at University of Colorado in Boulder, provides this succinct assessment: “’When lots of charter schools open up, it’s like a new Walmart store moving in. You could look at it and say, “Well, the schools in a community are losing families because of healthy competition the same way that the hardware store is losing customers because of healthy competition.” But that doesn’t take into account the long-term harms to the community, which are probably greater than any short-term benefit.’”
The Walton Foundation has also provided substantial funding to New Leaders for New Schools, ostensibly a more politically centrist organization. But it is worth noting that New Leaders for New Schools is headed by John Schnur, a former advisor to Arne Duncan, who as Secretary of Education has pursued all sorts of initiatives directly or indirectly leading to increased privatization of public education. So, in this context, “center” and “right” are, in many respects, distinctions without much substantive difference. And that’s why this Department of Education is such a profound disappointment—because it has failed to provide a progressive alternative to the mindset that privatization and corporatization are somehow good for public education.